August 23, 2010 / 10:57 AM / 9 years ago

Congo's wealthy copperlands a world apart

LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Membership at the governor’s new gym costs $300 (193 pounds) a month, the gastronomic menu at the new $350-a-night hotel is going down a treat and traffic guided by lemon yellow-uniformed police runs smoothly under sunny skies.

While Congo is more often associated with rebel killings, labelled by the United Nations as the world’s rape capital, filled with red tape and river journeys into the depths of jungled gloom, Congo’s copperbelt, in the southern Katanga province, seems a world apart.

Buoyed by mining income for more than a century, Katanga’s provincial capital Lubumbashi shows little sign that nearly 80 percent of Congo’s 67 million people live on less than $2 a day.

“We are proud that we are the richest province, that we have jobs and that life is much easier than in (the capital) Kinshasa,” said Kabwita Ipanga, a street vendor who sells chess boards made of polished malachite, a mottled green stone from which the copper that has made the province rich can be derived.

Katanga has rebounded since the global financial crisis saw copper prices plunge and mining operations suspended, putting hundreds of thousands out of work. Congo estimates it will double output by 2012 to 850,000 tonnes of copper and 90,000 tonnes of cobalt.

Today expatriate miners can count on swimming pools, game-watching and bowling to amuse themselves, and London-listed Lonrho said it opened its smart hotel to serve those drawn by the $12 billion being invested in Katanga’s resources.

The country’s largest single foreign investment, the $2 billion Tenke Fungurume Mining project, in which Freeport McMoRan has a 57.75 percent share, is among several mines that pay tens of millions of dollars in taxes alone.

The zone also brought the Chinese running with a $6 billion deal that offers infrastructure in return for long-term access to copper and cobalt.

INDEPENDENT STREAK

With its art gallery, fake beach by a lake and one of Africa’s most successful football teams, TP Mazembe — personally sponsored by Moise Katumbi, the province’s tennis-playing governor who introduced a fleet of ambulances to the town — Lubumbashi screams “new money” with a force that belies a political past so fiery the province once declared itself a separate country.

Today’s riches are far from evenly distributed within the province, while progress has brought some awkward results.

Forty-tonne export trucks thunder down Tarmac roads laid by Chinese workers so unfamiliar with French that signboards are riddled with errors.

Controls and corruption at the nearby Zambian border can add three weeks to export times and add 40 percent on top of Zambian prices, as lines of 80 trucks wait for clearance at the border.

“Taxes are exceedingly high so we have to push up prices for the people,” said Lambert Tshisueka, general manager of Hermis transporters, a Greek operation with 250 trucks.

POLITICAL CABAL

Diplomats and analysts say the political elite in Lingala-speaking Kinshasa is drawn from the Swahili-speaking province.

“Katangans’ influence is felt in the backrooms of power, where they have unparalleled access to the president and are in control of the most important levers of state control,” said Christopher Melville, Africa specialist with London-based risk consultancy Menas Associates.

President Joseph Kabila’s father Laurent, also president but assassinated in 2001, was from the north of Katanga, and his son has many allies from Katanga, including police chief John Numbi, Oil Minister Celestin Mbuyu and Central Bank Governor Jean-Claude Masangu.

Securing unofficial Katangan influence at the heart of government is critical for keeping the province on board.

“It reduces the likelihood that Katanga will attempt to separate from a country that provides few ostensible benefits to the province,” Melville said.

Investors have grown wary of Congo, and political risk insurance premiums have shot up 40 percent since last year as a result of fears that the national government does not respect contracts, according to the African Trade Insurance Agency.

“We see what we produce but the Katangans are not benefiting,” said Christophe Kawel, 63, a museum guide who reminisced about singing the Katangan national hymn at school. “Separation could earn us more money.”

Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Alison Williams

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